1 Corinthians 2.1-12, Matthew 5.13-20
This week Diana and I had to sit down and decide what dates we were going to have our holidays on, so the clergy rotas could be sorted out well in advance.
This was a bit odd because, driving up and down the little Devon lanes on various visits around the five parishes, we keep finding ourselves saying to each other that we still feel like we are on holiday here all the time!
It's lovely to be living in a place which makes you feel like that. Part of it is the newness of the experience. A bit like being a holidaymaker, at the moment it's all about exploring and discovering, sampling new experiences.
And new experiences bring new revelations, bring fresh perspectives, throw new light on old matters.
Being a newcomer has its difficulties too - like getting used to the price of heating oil and the amount of petrol needed to get around these parts (but I know it's not just newcomers, we all struggle with those things, especially at the moment). But I count it a privilege to be an outsider coming into a place which has so much culture and so much history and where Christianity has been lived and taught, where prayer has been valid, for centuries.
Being new I'm learning something everyday. About the places, the people; from conversations, from journeys, from local news programmes and papers. From looking and listening for the light.
This morning I'm at Bratton Clovelly and then at Germansweek. Even though I've spent too little time in these places so far, nevertheless they have already prompted new revelations, thrown new light on old matters, brought fresh perspectives to my mind: for instance, at Bratton, noticing that way back when, the villagers decided that the stocks should be placed inside the church, and have the inscription written on them, 'Fear God and Honour the King': wondering why? and what this says about this Christian community's understanding of crime, punishment, and faith? Or looking at Bratton's wall paintings and considering afresh how people learn in churches more from what they see than what the preachers might tell them in a sermon - so shouldn't we do more with that, to excite the curiosity of those who come in here?
Germansweek has me thinking about what's in a name - quite a lot, being the answer. I've been learning what a week is, thinking about the influence of the Saxons on this area and how that's reflected in the names of the farms and the villages. And pondering precisely who St German was, or was it St Germanus, and whether or to what extent it really matters, thinking that it was more what he did that matters, a former lawyer and governor, a bishop, coming to that little place and preaching to the people in the fields.
These are the sorts of things which a particular kind of tourist visiting our churches might observe and consider. First impressions. But it's clear to us that there's so much more to our story than these things alone. Someone wanting to know more about the place will start to think about the people who have worshipped here - and who worship here now.
Church history isn't dusty when you remember it has a human face and realise that it's the story of people of faith - who have founded these places of worship, enlivened and sustained them, who have taken God's Spirit to their hearts and let him live though them. And the present day church, facing the challenges of being in what some people call a post-Christian society, isn't without hope because its story too is the story of people of faith - who continue to worship in these places, to enliven and sustain them, who have taken God's Spirit to our hearts and let him live though us.
I've learned so much from the people of faith here already, about how you have lived the Christian life here, how the message about the good news of Jesus Christ has come to you, and how you have shared it with others. I've realised that every one of these is a different story - though many share common ground in an inspirational preacher or a much-loved priest, or a godly parent - and that some of them involve conflicts: conflicts within churches between people who have different ideas about how best to live the life of faith, conflicts sometimes within people's hearts where faith has become a struggle to overcome, a hope to reach out towards or a dream to cherish.
Clearly these communities have for centuries been enriched by the seasoning of the salt of the people of God, faithfully living the life of the Spirit in the face of the dubious wisdom of the world. Clearly for centuries the darkness of unbelief, shrouding people's hearts like a damp Dartmoor mist, has been lifted by the light which good Christians have shone by their examples and in their words, in these communities. And will continue to.
Jesus tells us, his followers, that we are salt and light. He tells us that we are salt and light, not that we should hope to be or dream about being: by the circumstance of having opened our hearts to his Spirit in our lives we already are those who will enrich and enlighten our neighbourhood, who will season and shine, flavour and fluoresce, because God's Spirit lives in and through us, over and above the wisdom of the world.
We can all understand this at some level; everyone instinctively understands what it means to be 'the Salt of the Earth' - that's why it has become such a well-known phrase; and 'let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven' - we get that too, and hopefully we understand that the emphasis is on 'let your light shine' - God has placed the light within you, you just need to open yourself up to others to let it out.
But in thinking about these things we might also appreciate that there is a lot more to being salt and light than we may so far have seen or felt. Rather like the tourist reaching the point where the guidebook just doesn't any longer tell them enough about what that place is really like, who wants to understand more about the depth of the place's culture, to understand what really makes its people tick, to get beneath its skin, to stop being a tourist and start really living there, so too we reach a point in our spiritual lives where we understand that there is far more beyond what we already know or have experienced, and we want to find ways of going there. This is the point at which Paul, writing to the believers in Corinth, introduces the concept of Christian maturity.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Corinthians 2.12)Christian maturity brings new revelations, fresh perspectives, throws new light on old matters for us.
What does it really mean to be the salt of the earth, who has modelled that 'saltiness' to us by their example, at what points in our lives have we been enriched and enlivened by people who have brought the light of Christ to us, how might we have enlightened others, and how, in the future, could we do this? These are the sorts of questions we have when we want to understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. These are the sorts of questions we have when we know we want to grow in Christian maturity.
It is always worth us taking stock of our faith from time to time: to enquire of ourselves prayerfully, whether we have questions in our hearts which need answering, whether we are in need of fresh perspectives, new light to be given to us, whether we need to strengthen our faith and deepen our understanding, so that we can 'understand the gifts bestowed on us by God', and how we might share them with others.
If you spend some time doing this you may come back with requests - requests to God, to answer the prayers of your hearts, requests to those who you see as teachers or examples of the faith for guidance, help, or encouragement. I'd like to encourage you to think and pray about whether and in what ways you want to see your faith develop, your witness to grow, and I'm keen to hear your responses.
You might consider whether you might be interested in being part of a 'Christian basics' group or a study group or prayer group, or be involvedáwith parish visiting or with some form of outreach, or in thinking about different ways of being church for the people of this area. Or you might simply want to deal with a particular sticking point for you, in belief or in how to apply that belief at home or at work or in the community.
I'm keen to hear your responses because I'm keen to mature from being a tourist here, feeling like I'm on holiday, to becoming one who will share more deeply with you the joys, and pains, and resurrection hopes, of being God's people here, understanding, celebrating and sharing together the gifts bestowed on us by God.
Click on the Northmoor Churches website for a little more background on the churches mentioned.